By Hal Bernton, April 7, 2015, Seattle Times staff reporter
Six Greenpeace activists on Monday morning made a high-seas boarding of the Polar Pioneer drilling rig, which is being transported to Seattle in preparation for Shell’s summer exploration season off Alaska’s North Slope.
The six activists approached the rig aboard an inflatable, then used climbing lines to get aboard. They created a camp with tarps and hammocks on a tiny catwalk under the main deck.
“It’s chilly and a bit windy, but not terrible,” said Aliyah Field, a 27-year-old U.S. activist who spoke Monday to The Seattle Times from the rig. “It is rather beautiful.”
The drill rig is being taken to Seattle atop a heavy-lift vessel, the Blue Marlin.
In a written statement, Greenpeace says the six activists — from Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Austria and the U.S. — made their boarding about 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.
Field said the group intends to stay “as long as it takes for Shell to get our message loud and clear that drilling in the Arctic is entirely unacceptable.”
A Shell official on Monday confirmed the activists were on the rig in an action they say jeopardized the safety of both the contractor’s crew on the Blue Marlin and the activists themselves.
“Shell has met with organizations and individuals who oppose energy exploration offshore (of) Alaska,” said a written statement released by Shell. “We respect their views and value the dialogue. We will not, however, condone, the illegal tactics employed by Greenpeace. Nor will we allow those stunts to distract from preparations under way to execute a safe and responsible exploration program.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is aware of the boarding and is monitoring the situation, according to a Coast Guard spokesman in Honolulu.
Shell plans to drill this summer in Chukchi Sea, where the U.S. Geological Survey estimates geological formations beneath the ocean bottom may hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil.
Environmentalists have opposed the Chukchi exploration as posing too great a risk of oil spills, and as setting the stage for development of major new reserves of fossil fuels that would help escalate climate change.
In Seattle, environmental groups have sued to try to block Shell from using the Port of Seattle as a hub. Sunday, activists organized a protest, with marchers in West Seattle holding signs saying “Shell No.”
“We have been in communication with folks in Seattle and feel very encouraged and affirmed,” Field said.
Shell leaders have often acknowledged that climate change driven by fossil-fuel combustion is a major 21st-century challenge. But they also have made a major bet that Arctic exploration off Alaska will lead to substantial new oil production in the decades ahead.
“The issue is how to balance one moral obligation, energy access for all, against the other, fighting climate change. We still need fossil fuels for a lower-carbon, higher-energy future,” said Ben van Beurden, Shell chief executive, in a February speech.
Shell first drilled in Arctic waters in the 1980s, but it later abandoned the test holes during a period of low oil prices.
In 2012, when Shell prepared to resume oil exploration off Alaska’s Arctic coast, the company used shipyards in the Pacific Northwest to refurbish an oil rig and for other work.
Shell saw plenty of things go wrong in the restart of its Alaska offshore-oil exploration.
A drill rig — the Kulluk — went aground off Kodiak Island in South Central Alaska after its tow lines broke during a December 2012 return voyage from the Arctic.
Noble Drilling, the Shell contractor that operated the drill ship Noble Discoverer, pleaded guilty last month in U.S. District Court to eight felony counts and was fined $12.2 million for safety and environmental crimes related to the 2012 drilling season.
Shell shut down its exploration operations during the past two years.
For this new round of drilling, Shell plans to base vessels at Terminal 5 in West Seattle.